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By: Michael F. McGuffin
The three day hikers looked at Bill and I as if we were a sideshow attraction. "You fellas lost?" one finally inquired, pointing to the neon orange skis strapped to Bill’s backpack.
"Naw there’s still plenty of snow up there." Bill replied, flashing a knowing smile.
The trio courteously returned Bill’s smile, that kind of head nodding closed mouth grin adults confer on naive children. In retrospect we must have made an odd sight; a pair of hikers carrying downhill skis and plastic boots along a flower-studded trail, a full two weeks after Independence Day.
As the days stretch towards spring most skiers sadly exile their snowy accouterment to dusty closets and dark corners where it will remain until the chair lifts return to life. For a devoted group of Northwest ski mountaineers, however, the ski season never ends. Ski mountaineers combine skiing and mountaineering skills to descend slopes that are only accessed by non-mechanical means. Because they do not depend on automated lift service, ski mountaineers are free to enjoy the unique activity of late spring and summer skiing atop Washington’s perennial snowpack.
While traditionally a winter activity, skiing during the late spring and summer has the advantages of warmer temperatures and safer snow conditions. Gliding down-slope beneath a warm summer sun wearing only a tee shirt and shorts rekindles that childish elation of getting away with something; summer skiing just feels like cheating. Avalanches are a very real hazard faced by all snowbound backcountry travelers, and while late season skiing does not negate this threat it is certainly reduced. Repeated daytime melting and evening freezing creates uniform conditions through the depth of the snowpack translates to safer more predictable backcountry travel.
In order to facilitate travel through soft snow, ski mountaineers typically use one of two types of specialized binding systems, either free heel or randonee. Both of these bindings allow the skier to comfortably walk uphill with skis attached. The free heel binding attaches to a tongue cantilevered from the front of a specially designed flexible boot. True to its name, the free heel system has no rear boot-to-ski attachment enabling the skier to execute the graceful kneeling turn known as the telemark. Randonee bindings, on the other hand, combine a hinged forward binding with a detachable heel lock. With the heel locked in place, the randonee system resembles a commonplace alpine binding. Once the heel is freed, however, the binding pivots about the forward hinge, allowing the skier to ascend a desired slope. In order to obtain traction during the ascent climbing skins, strips of fabric or serrated rubber which grip the snow, are attached to the base of each ski. Upon reaching the top, the skier simply strips off the skins, and begins the much-anticipated descent.
Excellent late spring skiing can be found near the high passes along the North Cascades Highway (Highway 20). Because access to this area is nearly impossible during the winter due to road closure many ski mountaineers to refer to the day that the barricades are removed as opening day to the second Cascade ski season. The Silver Star Glacier, and the slopes below Blue Lake Peak are two recommended locations in this area due to their scenic beauty and moderate difficulty.
As the summer sun erodes the remnants of winter, skiers need to climb to higher altitudes in search of a suitable medium. The best way to gain altitude here in the Pacific Northwest to go to Mt. Rainier, where a popular ski destination is the Muir Snowfield. Located on the south side of the mountain, nearly a vertical mile above the Paradise Lodge, the Muir Snowfield provides a guaranteed source of summer snow. Unfortunately the surface layer of the snowfield tends to be rough and icy creating frustratingly difficult ski conditions. The north side of the mountain, on the other hand, is subjected to a less direct sunlight creating a smoother, more uniform skiing surface. Two excellent choices for summer skiing on Mt. Rainier’s northern flanks are the slopes above Observation Rock and the Frying Pan Glacier.
Washington’s year round snowpack allows ski mountaineers the unique opportunity to enjoy the exhilaration of warm weather skiing. Skiers are motivated by a number of reasons, for some its the thrill of a steep descent, others seek the rhythmic grace of a perfectly arced turn, while a few just enjoy the high altitude scenery. Whatever the reason, descending warm sun-groomed slopes during late spring and summer will add a new dimension and appreciation of this ethereal and intoxicating sport.